Web Firms Fret over FirstGov's Fees

Fees running as high as tens of thousands of dollars each year may make it too pricey for some Internet companies to link to the federal government's planned Internet portal, an Internet executive said.

"Tens of thousands of dollars is potentially too high," said Mike Hernon, vice president of govWorks Inc., which provides online services to state, local and foreign governments.

The fees would cover the cost for the portal FirstGov, designed to essentially be a search engine that would pull from all of the federal government's Web pages. It is intended to provide the public with fast and comprehensive access to the information that the government posts on the Internet.

The Federal Search Foundation, which is designing the portal, disclosed last week that it plans to charge for-profit companies a fee for dedicated links to the portal. The fees will be based in part on the number of queries those companies submit.

Companies that generate a lot of queries will pay higher fees, said Dave Binetti, the foundation's interim director. He characterized the fees as "not exorbitant."

The foundation also expects to charge a fixed fee to cover the cost of any software and hardware that companies will need to connect to the portal, Binetti said.

GovWorks and other Internet companies, including America Online Inc., have publicly fretted about the dent that FirstGov access fees could put in their budgets. AOL officials were worried that fees might be based on the number of subscribers a company had. For AOL, which has 23 million subscribers, that could be costly.

An AOL spokesman declined to say what the company thought of the query-based fees.

The U.S. General Services Administration, the federal agency most involved in setting up FirstGov, has said the fees would cover operating costs. Hernon said nominal fees would be fair. "No one expects the foundation or the federal government to absorb the cost" of providing connections to for-profit companies, he said. "We expect to become a partner.

We don't have a problem paying a reasonable fee. When they start talking about tens of thousands of dollars," the company might think twice, he said.

The fee schedule is still being developed.The fees would apply to Internet companies that want to maintain their own Web pages for searching for government information but want the search engine behind the page to be the government engine. Any Internet sites will be able to establish hotlinks to the search engine for free by linking to FirstGov, GSA officials said.

The portal is expected to be ready in mid-September.

Internet companies don't have to use the government search engine, but there are advantages to doing so, Binetti said.

Because the FirstGov search engine is being designed specifically to search government sites, it will provide "better comprehensiveness" than engines designed for a wider range of searches, he said.

And if the search engine works as expected, Internet companies can probably anticipate recovering some or all of their costs as improved access to government information attracts more subscribers and advertisers, he said.

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